The Disease history book cont’d…

More fascinating notes from the book, Disease by Mary Dobson. (Part One of review is here.)

According to the author, the actual origin of the popular drink of gin-and-tonic actually got kickstarted with the disease malaria and its not-very-tasty medicine, quinine.

In the early days of the British Raj, there was a big public health problem with malaria, and quinine was a main staple of malaria prevention and treatment. Dobson reports that the British people would add quinine to Indian tonic water (to make it taste better?) and that led to the basis of a gin-and-tonic.

(Something similar happened in the States as well: during the U.S. Civil War, every Union soldier in the malarial zone was given a daily dose of quinine sulphate dissolved in whisky. Huh.)

Unrelated random fact: One famous smallpox survivor was Queen Elizabeth I who contracted the disease in 1592. Her penchant for wearing her face covered in white lead and vinegar is thought to have been her strategy to cover up her smallpox facial scars. They are also thought to have been the reason why she didn’t want to get married as she didn’t want to show anyone her scarred skin. (Poor thing.)

Stalin had smallpox as well, btw, but he had all his photos touched up to hide that. (Remind you of any other orange-colored world leader who would also probably do that?) President Lincoln survived the same disease. And so did Pocahantas (who died in 1616 on a visit to England, possibly of smallpox.)

Moving on to polio and its history of vaccination: I didn’t know this, but in 1955, Cutter Laboratories (a U.S. company and one manufacturer of the then-recently licensed Salk vaccine), distributed faulty serum. A total of 200,000 people were inoculated with this serum which then turned out to contain “virulent non-attenuated polio virus”. Seventy thousand people became ill; 200 children were left paralyzed and ten died. (I’m wondering if this is controversy is somehow related to the ferocious antivaxxers of today? Vaccinate your kids, folks.)

So, by now, you might have surmised that I may have enjoyed this gruesome but straightforward book. I really did (and so much so that I’m going to keep this copy to read at another time).

However, there was one (easily preventable) thing that kept popping up – poor production work with the graphics.

Whoever the poor soul was who added the graphic elements to one of the later proofs kept overlaying their image outlines so that the rest of the image field would cover up one end of some of the paragraphs which meant that there were whole sections of text where you had to sort of guess what it was trying to say.

I don’t want to seem too judge-y. It’s an easy thing to miss, in general, but proofreading/editing should have happened. I would have thought that if you had a well-written serious tome about public health hazards from the past, the least you could do would be to check for that novice error. (Maybe it was an intern. It’s intern season…) 😉

If I had been Dobson, I would have been disappointed in the final product (if she ever saw it): her research, her words, probably her collection of illustrations – and then there is that?

That aside, the book did have some lovely qualities: glossy pages, plenty of high-res graphics, loads of historical ephemera and lots of intriguing sidebars with fascinating bits and pieces about whatever disease was the topic for that section.

Ghoulish but fascinating. Highly recommended.

Just FYI: Other medical history (or medical-related) reads for JOMP include:

Disease: The Extraordinary Stories Behind History’s Deadliest Killers – Mary Dobson (2007)

Now, there is a dismal solitude… shops are shut… people rare, very few walk about… and there is a deep silence in almost every place. If any voice can be heard, it is the groans of the dying, and the funeral knell of them that are ready to be carried to their graves.

Thomas Vincent, describing the Great Plague of London, 1665-1666.

Seeing as we are in the midst of this current pandemic, what better time (thought I) than to read more about other diseases that have occurred throughout history. So, shopping my TBR shelves, I found this book…

This title was written by Mary Dobson, a medical historian who was director of the Wellcombe Unit for the History of Medicine and a Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford. (Thus, she knows her facts and there are a lot of them. She’s also, pleasingly, a very good writer.) 

As the book’s subtitle tells you, the contents cover health emergencies over the years, ranging from syphilis to schistosomiasis (due to parasitic worms in tropical aquatic snails) to SARS and bird flu. 

It was really interesting to read that Dobson, a scholar of medical history, also mentions the then-current widespread concern for another modern flu pandemic, perhaps from animal vectors (and this was when the book was published in 2007, 13 years ago).  And yet the Orange Goblin disbanded the U.S. Pandemic Taskforce last year since “we didn’t need it anymore.” <smh>

[Aside: I am so curious to read the not-yet-published NF account of this particular current-day pandemic. You know there are gonna be a few titles out there that will cover it.]

Back to the book: the chapters are divided into Bacterial Diseases, Parasitic Diseases, Viral Diseases and Lifestyle Diseases, and each chapter (and disease) goes into depth (including pretty detailed timelines) to cover the basic history of the topic for that section. It was absolutely fascinating for me.

Since I am a medical history nerd, I thought it might be best to approach this using bullet points. Here we go: 

  • Quarantines first started when the Black Death arrived at a Venetian colony called Ragusa. The inhabitants detained travelers from an infected nearby island for thirty days (or trente giorni). This time period proved not quite long enough so they increased the time period to forty days (or quaranti giorni) – thus, the word “quarantine”. Now you know… 😉 
  • Speaking of plague, you may remember that 17th-century physicians had the wearing-a-mask activity and social-distancing down to a science… They would also stuff herbs down the beak to help cover up the smell of rotting flesh. (See pic below.) Luckily, we don’t need that just yet. 🙂
  • Another word-related random fact: stethoscope. Invented in 1816 by French physician Réné Théophile Hyacinthe Laënnec (1781-1826), who had been embarrassed when treating a young overweight woman patient. He had wanted to listen to her heart but didn’t want to put his ear directly against her chest, so he rolled up a tube of newspaper and bingo – the start of a new medical instrument. (“Stethos” is Greek for “chest”, and “skopein” means “to look at”.) 
  • And OMG. I was thoroughly grossed out by the discussion of human worm infestations. One rather ethically-dubious experiment concerns two criminals who had been both condemned to death in the mid-19th-century. A researcher called Friedreich Küchenmeister fed the prisoners some pig meat with worm larvae inside it, and once the men had been put to death, scientists recovered adult tapeworms from their innards, one measuring 1.5m (or about 5ft) long. Euuugh.  (One good thing about worms: they have potential to treat human illness as a form of biotherapy, but you’d have to (heavily) sedate me long-term for that procedure if the worms are alive when they’re put in me.) 
  • The word “vaccination” originates from Latin “vacca” (which means the word for “cow”). Pasteur gave the procedure that name in honor of earlier researcher, Edward Jenner (1749-1823) who came up the idea of inoculating healthy people with cowpox to give them immunity to the more virulent and fatal smallpox, a big problem at the time. 
  • Speaking of smallpox, why is it called “small” pox? Possibly to differentiate it from syphilis, another disease with pustules and called the “great pox”. 

And there is more really interesting info, naturally, in this read but I don’t want to wear out my welcome with you. (You might not be quite so taken with medical history as I am!) 🙂

So – expect Part Two in an upcoming blog post, and in case you’re not sure, I really enjoyed this particular read! 

One of the 17th-century physicians wearing the plague-avoidance outfit of the time. Not such a far remove from the mask and glove requirements of the current day. 😉

Reading Catchup

I’ve been reading quite a bit since the COVID thing started (although not as much as I had anticipated seeing as I have all this time available), but the pace is picking up (in between jigsaws!), and I’m planning on reading more now that school is finished and the grades are in. Phew. 

In the past few weeks, I’ve read a mix of books, a couple of them really excellent and one just meh, but all of them off the TBR. (Go me.)

The “just meh” one was “Home Life One”, the first of four volumes and a collection of newspaper columns from an English journo (?) named Alice Thomas Ellis. (See top pic.) She wrote columns on domestic life, I suppose you’d call it, and they were published in The Spectator, a British magazine that runs conservative (I think). 

I must have read someone somewhere online praising these offerings and rushed out to order it, but the columns didn’t seem to hit the same high notes for me. I think some of this was because I just worked my way through the collection, one after the other, and I now doubt the wisdom of reading the book that way since it all got pretty same-y after a while. Maybe I should remember that next time I choose a similar book. The content was also a little dated (but that’s hardly the author’s fault!) Moving on…

The good reads: a Canadian novel called “Birdie” by Tracey Lindberg (2015). Selected as a 2016 CANADA READS title, I picked this book up on a trip to Vancouver last year as one written by an aboriginal native author. This was a really good read, although it covers some heavy-duty topics as part of the plot: sexual abuse, mental illness, native rights… 

Kudos to the author, though, as this book reads smoothly and although the characters (one in particular) undergoes some hellish experiences, it’s written in a manner that it’s not too much for you as a reader (although it might be triggering for some people). Good book; off the TBR; native author about native characters: win-win-win. 

(Plus – look at the fantastic artwork on the cover: It’s a detail from Modern Girl, Traditional Mind Set by George Littlechild (2010), an author/artist of the Cree Nation, same as Lindberg.)

The other excellent read was just a cheapie bargain book from the sales shelves at B&N (when it was open), but despite the price, it was soooo good (if you like this sort of thing). I’m going to do a more thorough review in the next few days as I’d like to chat about it more in-depth, but suffice to say, I loved it. Stay tuned.

And then a good friend of mine happened to ask me to be an early reader for her second novel – which I loved. If anyone is an agent (or knows one), please let me know. I’d love to hook my writing friend up with someone who knows what they’re doing in the publishing world. Other people need to read her work – it’s good!!

And naturally – jigsaws! 😃

Swabbing the decks…

Well, I apologize for that unintended slightly-longer-than-I thought break there. Life has gone a little awry (just as it probably has for you all as well), and it’s taken me a little bit to get my bearings back. Our university classes all had to be moved online in a remarkably short amount of time, and it seems that I have spent most of the last couple of weeks either online in workshops learning how to do this effectively or messing around with the software needed to do it. 

However, I feel more comfortable with the software now and have a stronger idea of just how to make this transition work for both the students’ academic experience and my own personal one. I’ve learned to keep things as simple as possible and we’re all taking it day by day. 

Like an awful lot of others out there in book-blogging land, I found it hard to concentrate on reading for a little while, but this is coming back to me now. Thank goodness. 

Anyway, I thought I would make this post more of a catch-up post than anything and then I can move onto getting back into the swing of things. 

So – to the reading. I really enjoy Cathy746’s blog which focuses on reading from Ireland, and when I learned that she would be running February as “Read Ireland” month, I really wanted to join in with that. I toddled off to the TBR shelves and read the following as a tribute to the Emerald Isle: 

  • Loving and Giving – Molly Keane (F)
  • Death in Summer – William Trevor (F)
  • The Circle of Friends – Maeve Binchy (F)
  • The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind – Billy O’Callaghan (F/short stories). 

For two titles without links, I’m afraid that I didn’t write up official reviews for them. However, I can report that the Binchy was a great read – like “a big cup of tea with chocolate digestives” good read and it hit the spot at a time when stress was quite high re: the class online transition. (To give you an idea of that, I have never taught online nor have I ever taken a class online, so I had a lot of learning to do! I’m much more comfortable with the whole process now, thankfully to the high level of support from both the university and my faculty colleagues.) 

The O’Callaghan short stories were good with a couple of great ones in there. I think reading short stories as a unit is a bit of a gamble, and to be honest, I’m not convinced that reading the stories one after the other (as I did with this title) was the best way to experience them. I think I’ll probably make more of an effort to spread out the short-story reads a little more in the future. I bet that is a completely different reading experience that way. 

Anyway, O’Callaghan is an Irish author and this was a good read. I also have one of his novels on deck so perhaps that might be more up my alley. 

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Another read that was definitely up my alley was an old collection of themed essays from the acclaimed zoologist Sir David Attenborough. Called “Journeys to the Past”, this collection of writing pieces goes back to the 1960s when Attenborough was traveling to far-flung places such as Madagascar, Tongo and Australia’s Northern Territories “doing what he does best, journeying with camera and pen to observe animals and tribal customs in some of the remotest parts of the world,” says the book cover. 

Although written 60 years ago, this essay collection more than meets the mark for excellence in nonfiction writing. I had wondered if there would be some non-PC descriptions of places and peoples, but there were none. (I shouldn’t have worried. It was Attenborough, after all.) A thoroughly enjoyable armchair travel with an erudite and humorous host who plainly adores what he was lucky enough to do. He’s is just as thrilled meeting the local tribal representatives and learning their customs, despite his main focus being on animals, and his enthusiasm and respect for the individuals who he meets in the course of his travels were a balm for this frazzled soul. 

This was by far one of the best of the reads I’ve had in the past few weeks, and if you’re looking for some gentle reads combined with some far-off travel (from the comfort of your own shelter-in-place home), then you won’t go wrong with Sir David. 

A completely different read from Attenborough was a short read by NYT critic, Margo Jefferson, who wrote a small collection of provocative essays about Michael Jackson. (Yes, that Michael Jackson. Thriller one.) Jefferson takes a pretty academic lens to Jackson’s life and provides much food for thought about him. I’m still thinking about this read and am contemplating putting together a full review of this book since it’s got a lot of material inside the slim page count. (I’ve read some other Jefferson work: check out the review of Negroland here.)

So, I’ve been reading. And napping. And learning new software. And playing with my animals. And going for walks. And more napping. 🙂  I’m planning on adding more reading to this list from now on. 

Turtle Diary – Russell Hoban (1975)

I’m not entirely sure where I first heard of this title (someone out there in Blogland), but whoever you are/were – thank you! This was a surprisingly good emotive read – and ended up being much more than I had initially thought it was going to be. 

Written as an epistolary novel (be still my heart), this wry but thoughtful narrative features alternating diary entries from two middle-aged Londoners, one divorced, one who “looks like the sort of spinster who doesn’t keep cats and is not a vegetarian”, but both leading pretty lonely lives. (It’s rather Muriel Spark-like in some ways.)

The overlap between these two characters occurs at the aquarium at London Zoo with the turtle enclosure. Although visiting at different times, William G. (the divorced person) and Neaera both have the same idea of freeing the trapped turtles in their too-small cage and it’s this, along with other overlaps, that leads them to come into contact with each other. 

It’s not a simple love story though (although at first blush, it might read as though it’s being set up like that). It’s also not completely filled with middle-aged glumness and angst. (It has some good humor in places.) It’s actually much more complex and layered so what, at first, reads like a fairly straightforward read actually ends up giving you lots to think about. Kudos to Hoban to not taking the easy route with this plot. 

William, now divorced (although why remains a mystery), works in a bookshop and lives in a slightly rundown boarding house. The divorce has meant he has lost his house, his mortgage, daily access to his children, and now he is forced to share a bathroom and a tiny kitchen with his irksome (but distant) housemates. Neaera, OTOH, is a successful children’s book author and illustrator although faced with a serious writer’s block at the moment. Both can be a little prickly and difficult, but there’s enough cheer to make it believable. 

The free-the-turtle plan, although hatched independently from each other, is the point at which these two people interact but through Hoban’s use of diary entries, the reader can see how each person has his/her own reasons for this idea. Generally, both feel trapped in their own lives as well, so it’s a metaphorical idea of freedom at the same time. 

The writing itself is reflective of its times (the mid-1970s) so there was a patch in the middle when I thought I was going to stop reading the book (Gendered expectations. Hippy groups that simulate your own birth! Gaaah.) However, soldier on and you’ll find that the remainder of the narrative picks up again and maintains its pace until you turn that last page with a sigh of satisfaction at both a solidly good read and a big unexpected twist which saves the plot from stereotype. 

Overall, this ended up being a really thoughtful read and I’m glad that I tracked it down. Thanks again to whoever it was who first mentioned it. I’d never heard of it but it was a worthwhile use of time. (It’s been republished by the NYRB back in 2013 so it might be easier to find for you. I found an earlier edition at a book sale.) And interestingly, it’s also come out as a 1985 British film of the same name.

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo (2019)

The Booker Prize winning title for 2019, Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Women, Other was an excellent and enjoyable read. Although somewhat complex in scope, the book is made up of short stories, each focused on a British woman of African descent, some related to each other and others not but all with an overlap to someone.

(It’s actually quite a complicated set up, but someone has put together a diagram of how each of the characters related to another, if that helps. It would have been helpful if I’d found this during the read. I’ll try to dig it up online for you… )

So there are twelve characters of a variety of ages and backgrounds. As a reviewer on MookesandGripes writes: each of the four main stories introduces the reader to one of four key figures, and then goes on to introduce the reader to two more key characters associated with each of those four already mentioned.

I hadn’t known about this pattern before I had finished the read, but I do think it would be helpful to keep it mind. I had picked up that different stories mentioned characters who had previously been mentioned, but you do have to keep your wits around to keep track of who was whom with whom. It’s a good book if you don’t – Evaristo is a good writer for certain. It’s just that when you see these interlinking pieces, it elevates the novel to a higher level of appreciation (or at least it did with me).

Another interesting characteristic of the novel is that Evaristo chose to write each of the stories using non-standard English (re: grammar) so there are no full-stops/periods. It’s fine – you get used to it – and I’m wondering if she made that choice to give the book more of a stream-of-consciousness feel. It does feel as though you’re privy to the character’s own private thoughts as Evaristo recounts their narratives in this style.

It’s a strongly feminist book and takes pains (although it’s done seamlessly) to be as inclusive as possible in terms of who each of these female characters represent, socioeconomically, sexually, gender identity, professionally, etc. However, regardless of the demographics given for each character, Evaristo has managed to make each a believable character for me. There was no “checking off a list” feel to the book, in terms of representatives from each of the particular groups. Each was presented “as is” and not “other”ed (re: the title). It was really smoothly written and organized with the message of inclusivity woven throughout the story as opposed to being layered obviously on top.

So, there were lots of things that I really enjoyed about this book, not least the way that Evaristo has managed to eerily and accurately reproduce the exact dialect (and a lot of the vocab) that people in my town had used when I lived there growing up. It was like hanging out with my English friends (in terms of conversational style) and it made the read very convincing for me. Every time I opened up the book, I was typically sucked in to the narrative and didn’t come up to the surface until a suitable breaking point in the structure.

You know, I’m not always in agreement with the judges of the Booker Prize each year but I’m definitely supportive of this year’s selection. Congratulations to the author. To the readers who haven’t read it yet: get thee to a bookstore or library and fix that situation. Prepare to put some focused time and effort into the read and it will repay you many times over.

Words New to Me…

typewriterkeys

* Naussica – a character in Homer’s Odyssey and daughter of King Alcinous
* Panoplied – a wide-ranging and impressive display
* Pightle – a small enclosure of land
* A clitter of stones – a mass of loose stones
* Coppisors – “Coppicing” is type of woodland management when one cuts a tree down to encourage repeated growth on stump
* Pleach – to plait or to interlace branches or vines (e.g. in making an arbor etc.)
* Cosimo – reference to one of the Popes (or equivalent)
* Architrave – referring to the molding around a doorway (at the top)
* Raillery – good natured ridicule

(Taken from both Roger Deakins’ Notes from Walnut Tree Farm and Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons…)

The result of coppicing in a wood...
The result of coppicing in a wood…